KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The homes of grandmothers are filled with trinkets and testaments of a life well lived. There's blankets to warm you, crosses to bless you, and something good for you to eat in the pantry. Jane McNeely's home is much the same; photographs of loved ones line the walls of the cozy house she's called home for four decades.
But there's another token Mamaw McNeely keeps that is even more sacred; a small, snow-white baby gown that has greeted 22 of her family members into the world.
"My family all enjoyed the story," McNeely, 87, said. "It's lost some of it's pizzazz over the years, but it's held it's shape pretty good I think."
The tradition began in 1950, when Jane was pregnant with her first child, and spotted the gown in Jacksonville store not far from where her husband was based in the Navy. To her, it was the cutest little snow white baby gown. She bought it.
"I think it was one dollar, seventy nine cents," she recalled.
Her firstborn son, David, was born in the gown and she put it away until she became pregnant with her second child.
Jane and her husband thought they would stop at two, but a third was soon on the way. Then fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh.
They all wore the gown home. "Almost sacred, it's a sacred thought," McNeely said said.
Through those generations she's taken care of the gown much as she's taken care of her four generations of family members, who only know love the second they step through her door.
She's made almost no changes to the gown. Well, almost no changes. The light pink trimming around the gown's collar was her own, purposeful addition.
"At one point I wanted the baby to be a girl so badly I got the gown out and trimmed it in pink. Replaced the blue ribbon with a pink one," McNeely said.
Sure enough, the next baby was a girl.
"Just a coincidence, of course," McNeely said. "But a good one."
Though the gown can only be worn by members of the family, her many grandchildren say she's the most caring woman they know. Her Knoxville home is open to anyone who wants to call the McNeelys kin.
"She's definitely the glue that holds the family together," Samantha Banker, grandchild number 10 of fifteen, said.
It's a family that keeps growing. Baby number two, a great-grandchild, arrived on August 31st 2019. Anna Grace took her first few breaths in the same garment as her mamaw and father before her when they came into the world.
"Here we are and it's still going in 2019," McNeely said.
And, still rejoicing in Anna Grace's arrival, the McNeely family is already awaiting the gown's next wearer.
They know that when they get here, they'll be greeted by Mamaw McKneely's enduring warmth, and the little white gown that's become part of her legacy of love.
"I wonder, who and when the next one will be," McNeely said. "I can't even imagine how far it'll go. But it pleases me to know that it'll go on beyond me."